March 9, 2008

"So That You May Believe"
Scripture: John 11:1-45
Sermon by Rev. Kathleen Groff
Dundee United Methodist Church

  In the gospel of John the story of Lazarus comes right before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It’s as if Jesus’ signs or miracles have built to an ultimate level from changing water into wine to raising Lazarus from the dead. I would like to tell that story now.

  Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (Note at this point that Lazarus is only ill, not dead. However his illness was deemed serious enough that a message was sent to Jesus) But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then, after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us go, that we may die with him.”

  When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

  Now Jesus had not yet come to the village but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So, they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

  It isn’t that Lazarus was resurrected into new life, it’s that Lazarus was brought back to the same life. There was no question about an empty tomb. The proof stood right in front of those gathered. This crowd had known beyond a doubt that Lazarus had died. It’s no wonder they came to believe in Jesus. They knew that Jesus held power over life and death. It’s no wonder that in a short time they would proclaim him “king” as he rode into Jerusalem. Jesus had brought them to belief in what he did. But this incident not only shows Jesus’ power, it shows God’s deep love and concern for humanity. When Jesus wept, he demonstrated the intense love that God has for all of humanity and out of this love God would allow Jesus to be sacrificed painfully. And it is the resurrection that followed that would lead others to belief.

  But that was more than 2000 years ago. What brings us to belief now in an age of skepticism and indifference toward the things of God? Well, let me tell you one more story. In the midst of struggling with illness, I heard of the death of my mother. Coughing my way through a conversation with my sister I learned the details of her death and the upcoming funeral in Columbus, Ohio. I remembered the disappointment I had had at my father’s short, impersonal, non denominational funeral service. And I looked back on my mother’s journey of faith and felt she deserved more than just a few impersonal words. On the surface it seemed that she hadn’t done much with her life. She had not worked at any paying job outside the home, but had gone along with whatever my father wanted in life. She had raised six kids and after my father retired traveled with him all over the world. It didn’t seem like much to put in a eulogy. But I prayed that somehow her faith could be brought out. It was then that I knew I would have to be the one to speak on her behalf, but wondered if the pastor who did the service would allow me to speak.

  When we arrived at the chapel at the cemetery, others began to arrive as well. There were most of my brothers and sisters, their spouses and children. Only one of my mother’s in-laws was able to come, but a former neighbor and her children came. Finally, the pastor showed up. I approached him with trepidation and asked him if it would be possible to speak. To show some clout I told him I was a pastor as well. His eyes lit up and he asked what denomination. I told the history of mom dropping us kids off to church every Sunday and then of her talking to the pastor one day and her beginning to come to church as well. I told him where we had attended church and to my amazement he said he pastured a church just a mile away from that church. He said he would be grateful if I would speak and the service began shortly after. As the familiar liturgy began, its words brought a soothing comfort. With the assurance of God’s grace flowing through me I was invited to stand and began to speak words of my mother’s transformation and growing faith. I spoke of her years of faithful service to her church in Columbus, then for years at St. Matthew in Livonia, then in Pompano Beach, Florida. Then I pointed to her sense of humor which never left her and was alive and well when we visited her in January of this year. The laughter reminded me that in spite of some difficulties I had in growing up, I had been blessed with the results of her amazing life transformation and her love for her family. I left that service sad but deeply satisfied that her faith had been remembered and honored. It is my firm belief that God has received her into new life and found a way to bolster and strengthen my own belief.

  We people of faith have those stories, stories of the power of God to transform us and move us ever deeper into faith. Stories that call us out of the tomb, renewed in this life, preparing us for the life to come. Those people surrounding Lazarus had a chance to come to belief. Is God any less loving today? God knows the pain of the world. God weeps for us today just as much as Jesus wept for Lazarus. And God continues to find ways to bring us to belief. That is what God yearns for, to have us firmly wrapped in His love and care, to carry with us faith that moves mountains and walks through the deepest pain I am still pained at the death of my mother. I will be for some time as I work out many conflicting feelings. There will be ups and downs in the weeks and months ahead. But I am certain that God will be in it all, moving me through grief and its highs and lows. There is no doubt that God has been with me through it all, sometimes in very visible and concrete ways. We need to remember our stories of faith? How has God called us to and sustained our belief in the one who lived our lives, died our death and conquered death itself, the one who brings new life in this life and in the life to come? God will continue to call us into ever deeper relationship and reaffirmation of belief. Each day, as we move through the ups and downs of life, God finds opportunities to speak to us and bolster that belief. We can count on that.